October 22, 2018

Workshop aims to change Orthodox LGBTQ conversation

If you type “Orthodox Judaism” into the Google search engine, the first suggestion that comes up is “Orthodox Judaism food” (nothing like Mom’s matzo ball soup!), the second is “Orthodox Judaism rules” (we certainly have a lot of them) and the third is “Orthodox Judaism homosexuality.”

What is the place within the Orthodox community for people who identify as LGBTQ? If Google doesn’t clarify the issue, Jewish law, or halachah, provides more questions than answers, as well. The topic was uncomfortably brushed aside by rabbinic authorities until the gay rights movement gained traction across the United States. Now, the Modern Orthodox community is beginning to openly discuss how to reckon with its LGBTQ members. Indeed, Rabbi Ari Segal, head of school at Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles, in an op-ed on his school’s student news website, called the issue “the biggest challenge to emunah [faith] of our time.” 

In Los Angeles, following last year’s Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage, Eshel, a national support and advocacy organization for Orthodox LGBTQ Jews that offers programming in Los Angeles, convened a group of Orthodox community members in the Pico-Robertson living room of Harry and Dorit Nelson to address the changing landscape, and an official LGBTQ Allies steering committee emerged from a subsequent meeting. The committee then teamed up with JQ International, a non-denominational, West Hollywood-based organization, to organize an Allies workshop event that took place on Sept. 18 at the law offices of Nelson Hardiman.

Some 45 people participated in the program, including mental health professionals, Jewish educators and members from multiple Los Angeles congregations, as well as Rabbi Steven Greenberg, a co-director of Eshel and the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi. Steering committee member Julie Gruenbaum Fax (a former staff writer for the Journal) said she was pleased but not surprised by the turnout. 

“What was so clear to me from putting this event together is that people are thinking about this,” she said. “We tapped into something that already existed.” 

Even as LGBTQ rights have expanded within the secular community, the Orthodox community has relied on biblical and rabbinic ordinances that appeared to leave little room for interpretation within the framework of traditional halachah. As a result, many Orthodox LGBTQ Jews have felt there is no place for them within their communities.

For Fax, this was a major motivating factor for getting involved. “It hurts me that the community that I love, the Orthodox community, would be causing such despair,” she said.

At the workshop, Greenberg painted the broad strokes of the halachich issues plaguing Modern Orthodox poschim (legal scholars), then shifted the conversation in another direction.

“OK, that’s the halachah,” he acknowledged, recounting a conversation with a fellow rabbi. “But have you heard the stories?”

Greenberg offered his own story about coming out publicly in 1999 after struggling with his conflicting identities for 15 years. Other personal stories cropped up over the course of the workshop. One man told of his sister coming out to their parents an hour before Shabbat, and how their Charedi brother refused to accept her until his own son came out many years later. Joseph Harounian, a gay Persian Jew from West Hollywood, said how difficult it was for him to come out to his community 17 years ago and spoke of his hopes that his visibility will make it easier for the youth of today.

Micha Thau, an out senior at Shalhevet and an intern at Eshel, said he hopes more LGBTQ Orthodox people will begin to open up about their experiences. “Everyone has a different story,” he said. “My story is different than everyone else’s, and everyone has their own points of tension. My story doesn’t connect to everybody, but someone else’s story may.”

After Greenberg’s presentation, the group divided up to role-play three potentially difficult scenarios: engaging rabbis and other community leaders over coffee, talking with kids during a car ride home from school and navigating a dinner conversation that turns homophobic. The goal was to learn to assert oneself as an ally, to open lines of communication and promote a culture that is welcoming to LGBTQ congregants. 

In addition to promoting personal stories, the steering committee also emphasized the importance of initiating change at the grass-roots level as a means of spurring rabbinic authorities into action. Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of Congregation B’nai David-Judea recently hosted a panel at the synagogue titled “Coming Out and Opening Up,” but his work in this area has been at the forefront among Orthodox religious leaders.

“We all know that a grass-roots, lay-led movement is much more effective than waiting for the rabbis to change their perspective,” said Rabbi Rachel Bat-Or, a Conservative rabbi and JQ International’s helpline director. “And I say this as a rabbi,” she said, smiling.

Eshel founder and co-director Miryam Kabakov singled out parents of LGBTQ youth as “catalysts for change.” While alienated kids coming out often seek out more accepting communities, their parents often will want to remain in their own communities, and this can stimulate change from within.

“The kids go away and don’t come back, and the parents are deeply disturbed by that,” Kabakov explained. “So they’re the ones who are pushing the rabbis.”

According to Kabakov, seeds have already been planted for future action. Eshel, which is in the midst of a multi-year cutting-edge grant from the Jewish Commmunity Foundation, Los Angeles, has held one-on-one meetings with many Orthodox rabbis around the Los Angeles community and led training sessions with educators at Shalhevet, a co-ed Modern Orthodox high school, and Pressman Academy, a Conservative kindergarten through eighth-grade day school that employs several Orthodox teachers. Also, a committee was recently formed to organize social gatherings for LGBTQ members in the Pico-Robertson area. 

For resources online, go to eshelonline.org or jqinternational.org.